The Life and Death of H.L. Hunley

By Greg Pizzuto
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the fall of 2001.

Horace Lawson Hunley, a lawyer and planter from New Orleans, understood the importance of the shipping trade to his beloved Confederacy. Hunley and his two partners, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, set out to create a three-man vessel that would travel underwater to assist in keeping the vital shipping lanes open for trade with Europe.

Horace Lawson Hunley

The three men started their ambitious project in 1861. In February of 1862, the men were ready for the first test of their new vessel. Christened the Pioneer, it proved seaworthy and was transported to Lake Pontchartrain for further testing. However, with enemy forces advancing on their location, the three men abandoned the vessel.

Their spirits were not dashed. All three knew the importance of their new invention. They continued to experiment with new designs, including an attempt to outfit their new craft with steam and electric engines. However, these efforts were halted when they believed they could not generate sufficient power to outrun the blockades. It was at this time that they decided that they must build a propeller shaft that would be powered by four men. This decision resulted in a craft that was sent to sea near Fort Morgan. However, heavy seas forced the men to abandon that vessel shortly before it sank.

Hunley and his partners then moved their operations to Mobile, Alabama and enlisted other investors to assist in the project. One of the investors was E. C. Singer, nephew of the man who invented the sewing machine. This is interesting to note as the spool of rope used in the torpedo rigging was patterned after a spool of thread used in the sewing machine.

Building where the H.L. Hunley was constructed in Mobile, Alabama

On July 31, 1863, a demonstration of the Hunley, as their submarine was now called, was held. An old barge was floated in the Mobile River. The H.L. Hunley, trailing a powder-filled cylinder attached to her stern by a long rope, headed toward the barge. When the Hunley was in position, a final compass reading was taken, a candle was lit for the only light on board the vessel, and the Hunley disappeared under the surface. Then it happened! A loud explosion occurred, sinking the barge. The Hunley, on orders of its captain, slowly surfaced and sailed back to shore – a success!

The H.L. Hunley was transported to Charleston where a presentation was made to General P.G.T. Beauregard. It was Lt. George Dixon, later a captain of the Hunley, who quickly understood the importance of the role that the Hunley could play in ending the blockade of Charleston Harbor. Dixon persuaded Beauregard to commission the Hunley for its mission.

The first effort to strike against Union ships ended in disaster when the Hunley sank with nine men on board. Five were trapped and drowned and four managed to escape. One of the sailors stated that the captain, Lt. John Payne, accidentally stepped on the diving mechanism, causing the submarine to dive while the hatches were still open.

The Hunley was recovered and the five drowned sailors were buried in Charleston.

Upon the recovery of the Hunley, a new crew was recruited from a group of civilian volunteers. Tragedy struck again as all of the crewmembers except Payne perished when a sea swell swamped the Hunley during a training session.

A 1902 illustration depicting Horace Lawson Hunley standing next to his submarine

For the next training session Horace Hunley selected a set of sailors from Mobile – all men who were familiar with the Hunley. Again, tragedy struck when on October 15, 1863, the Hunley sank once more, this time with its inventor, Horace Hunley, on board. Why Hunley was on board remains a mystery. The Hunley was found with its bow buried in the bottom of the sea, indicating pilot error.

The Hunley’s final crew was selected even before it was recovered from its location. This crew was to be under the guidance of Lt. George Dixon. Dixon had been injured at the Battle of Shiloh. He was saved from being killed by a $20 gold piece his fiancé had given him. Upon recovering from his injuries at Shiloh, Dixon inscribed the gold coin, noting how the coin had saved his life. Dixon believed the gold coin to be his good luck charm and carried it in his pocket. After months of repairs on the Hunley and training of the crew, Lt. Dixon and his crew were ready for their final battle.

The reverse (inscribed side) of Lt. George Dixon’s ‘lucky’ $20 gold piece found inside the Hunley after it was recovered from the bottom of Charleston Harbor in August 2000

On February 17, 1864 a classic David vs. Goliath tale unfolded. In one corner, the H. L. Hunley – weighing 7 ½ tons, 39 feet long, 3 feet, 10 inches wide (approximately the width of a twin bed), 4 feet, 3 inches tall (the length of a small bath tub), capable of a surface speed of 4 knots (4.6 mph), with a crew of nine.

In the other corner, The USS Housatonic – weighing 1,240 tons (165 times the weight of the Hunley), 207 feet in length (over 5 times as long), 38 feet wide (10 times the Hunley’s width).

The Hunley, slipping out from its dock under the cover of darkness, slowly powered its way towards the Housatonic – three miles away – a journey that would take an hour, but one that would never be completed.

The USS Housatonic

A lookout on board the Housatonic spotted the Hunley as it approached. Sailors started to fire upon the Hunley, with bullets bouncing off the steel structure.

The Hunley’s crew, battling fatigue, fear and the cramped quarters, felt the sudden jolt as their torpedo spar rammed into the side of the Housatonic. Frantically, the crewmembers quickly reversed their direction, pulling the Hunley away. With a shuddering thunder, the Hunley’s torpedo exploded and within three minutes the Housatonic was sunk, the first time a submarine had been used to sink an enemy vessel.

All the past tragedies of the Hunley seemed to disappear as the Hunley’s mission appeared to be a success. From the watchful shores of Sullivan’s Island, supporters of the Hunley had built fires as directional signals to guide the Hunley home. The supporters claimed to have seen the blue signal light coming from the Hunley. The signal was used to verify the mission was successful and the Hunley was safe. This was the last sighting of the Hunley – until now!

Mysteries and Discoveries of the H. L. Hunley restoration/excavation:

  • Lt. Dixon’s ‘lucky’ gold coin recovered: inscribed “Shiloh, April 6, 1862, My life Preserver, G.E.D.”
  • Union soldier’s ID tag discovered inside the Hunley: Ezra Chamberlin; Date entered service; Company K, 7th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers; a picture of George Washington on other side (Records indicate Chamberlin was killed in 1863 during a battle at Charleston Harbor.)
  • Candle holder for candle used to light interior while underwater
  • Remains of all crew members
  • Numerous artifacts including buttons, etc.
  • Hand crank
  • Pencil
  • Shoe
  • Wooden pipe for smoking
  • Sewing kit
  • Wallet

Related links:
Friends of the Hunley
Report: Friends of the Hunley Oyster Roast, October 23, 2009
A Visit to the H.L. Hunley and a Dose of Southern Culture
One Scientist May Have Figured Out Why a Civil War Submarine Sank
The New Explosive Theory about What Doomed the Crew of the Hunley